Nov. 1, 2000
By Ken Kleppel
Success on the college gridiron happens quickly for some, often for others, and never for yet another group.
For senior Jason Murray, success has come now.
And like a worthy prizefighter, the 6'1 255-pound fullback has battled to achieve it.
But don't be fooled by his reserved, soft-spoken demeanor off the field that sharply contrasts with his aggressive, hard-nosed style of play on the field.
Dropping nearly 20 pounds over the summer and reconditioning his surgically repaired left shoulder to the point where a once sharp pain has become only a nagging ache, the ever-patient underdog is back on his feet and ready for another round.
In the year 2000, he has come out punching.
"Coming back this year, you could see physically that he has developed a lot," says sophomore quarterback Gary Godsey.
"Mentally, he's is doing everything he needs to do to be a good player. Yet, his greatest strength is still his explosiveness. When he hits somebody, everybody knows he hit somebody."
"He is the hardest hitter on the team, without a question," says senior wide receiver Joey Getherall.
"Whenever Jason goes out there, I think that linebackers are less likely to go up and fill the hole. He brings a lot of fear to opposing linebackers. A lot of teams, when they watch film, will see that Jason is going to go out there and go after it. He's going to get a lot of respect."
Murray solidified this reputation after a series of friendly, but certainly physical, exchanges with former Irish linebacker Ronnie Nicks throughout 1998 spring drills. Despite competing with a broken finger, Murray sidelined the defense's hardest hitter by the 10th practice, as Nicks fell victim to a crushing isolation block.
Yet, a somewhat smiling Murray, downplays this now legendary battle.
"Ronnie and I traded hits every other week, but I think I ended up with the best of him at the end. I am still known for hitting hard, but there aren't many people left on the team for me to hit like that."
Three and a half years separated from those successful spring outings, it appears as if Murray has finally discovered his niche.
Murray notched his first career start against Stanford in place of injured junior Tom Lopienski and helped lead the Irish to a 20-14 victory. Murray then earned another start against Navy at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando a week later.
Just three weeks earlier, Murray shocked the capacity crowd at Michigan State with a six-yard, first period touchdown catch to give the Irish an early 7-0 advantage. It was the first catch of Murray's career and his first TD reception.
Yet for the former USA Today honorable mention All-America tailback at Belle Vernon (Penn.) High School, who rushed for 1,692 yards and 20 touchdowns on just 202 carries as a senior and averaged over nine yards per carry for a total of 2,035 yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior, admits the ability to run out of the backfield is not his greatest strength.
"He is a powerful blocker with great speed," says fourth-year running backs coach Desmond Robinson of Murray, whose style seems to perfectly complement the role of fullback in the Irish offensive scheme.
"When he hits you, you know you've been hit. He really is an explosive blocker."
Murray offers a modest interpretation.
"Although I never really blocked much in high school, blocking would be my top asset and that's basically what the coaches use me for. I still see room for improvement. I am definitely not where I thought I'd be after three years. These last few games are basically the only action I've seen other than special teams during my time at Notre Dame."
Luckily for Murray, a pair of former teammates faced similar challenges and were able to share their experiences.
"Jamie Spencer and Joey Goodspeed were definite influences. When I was young and discouraged that I wasn't playing, they were always there to tell me that my time would come and to basically keep my head in it. They were the older guys that I looked up to and who had been through it all already."
Taking his mother's advice while at Notre Dame has paid dividends as well. Acknowledging her unique perspective, Murray has survived a string of minor injuries combined with two major shoulder injuries, the latter necessitating season-ending reconstructive surgery just weeks into the 1999 season, that ultimately limited his overall playing time to under 10 minutes prior to the 2000 season.
"My mom always helped me out a lot. She always kept on me to stay positive and keep praying," says Murray.
"Everything happens for a reason. If good things are meant to happen to you, they will happen in the end, she would always remind me."
Months before graduating with a degree in accounting, and halfway through the 2000 football season, good things have finally come to pass.
Getherall believes it was just a matter of time.
"It's been really hard for him the first few years, but he has responded real well. He's put a lot of time and effort and his soul into working hard. He played well in this fall camp and proved to everyone that he's ready to play and be a big-time player this year."
"I just feel a lot more comfortable out there," Murray says.
"Although it doesn't seem like that much of a transition, it really was from tailback to fullback - from being down in a stance all the time to blocking all the time. You can't really play up to your ability if you're not comfortable, but I think that I am just now becoming comfortable with the position."
Composed, as always, Murray is ready to deliver a knockout punch before the final bell sounds.
And the opposing linebackers have no idea what's coming.